Photo courtesy of Molly Rice.

A group of Afghan refugee women is spreading a message of hope, friendship and acceptance through the universal language of food.

Zafaron Afghan Cuisine, a cooperatively owned and operated catering company based in Millvale, will soon give Pittsburghers a taste of the Central Asian country.

The name means saffron, a major Afghan export. During the harvest season, women toil in fields of purple flowers, delicately picking the crocus blooms to extract the spice inside. “When we make the food, they also know about our tradition and culture,” co-owner Zermina Sarwari says. “Our goal is to have a business that lets us stand on our own two feet.”

Sarwari, along with her business partners Gul Ghotai Tabee, Haida Bakhshi, Mastoorah Fazly and Nafisa Baheen, fled their homeland several years ago to build new lives in Pittsburgh. Although they were with their husbands and children, the new surroundings made them feel isolated. Together, they formed a bond in the kitchen.

Zafaron started as a creative project.

Photo courtesy of Molly Rice.

Writer Molly Rice, a resident artist with the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, was paired with the Northern Area Multi-Service Center in Sharpsburg to document the refugee resettlement experience. For two years, she worked with the five Afghan women, hearing their stories and communing with them at the dinner table.

Her task was to figure out a way to give the women — some of whom didn’t speak English — a voice through art. She asked them what they wanted Americans to know about Afghanistan. They wanted to move away from the war narrative and focus on the country’s natural and cultural beauty.

That’s when the conversation turned to cooking. The seasoned chefs had a lot to say on the subject. “It was the first time I had heard one of the women start talking,” Rice says. “It was like her voice got activated by this idea. The mood in the room changed.”

Photo courtesy of Molly Rice.

The result was “Khūrākī,” a play that doubles as a culinary event. Directed by Rusty Thelin, who with Rice owns a production company called RealTime Interventions, the show offers a glimpse into each woman’s home and life. They even hand-picked the actors who play them on stage and make Afghan dishes for the audience.

Khūrākī, which means “eat” or “meal,” debuted last spring with four sold-out performances at venues throughout the city. It earned Rice nominations for both the Mayor’s Award for Public Art and the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award.

Four encore performances are being presented March 11-14 at Christ Lutheran Church, 917 Evergreen Road in Millvale. Tickets start at $50 and there are discounts available for veterans, refugees, students and artists.

The second and final run of the show is being held in conjunction with the Afghan New Year on March 21 and features menu items traditionally served during the celebration.

Kishmish Paneer combines handmade cheese, milk, yogurt and raisins. Sabzi Chalaw is a mix of Basmati rice, spinach, vegetable oils and spices. Kofta is Halal ground beef, onions, garlic, eggs, tomato paste, vegetable oil and spices served with rice. Many of the featured dishes will appear on Zafaron’s catering menu.

To prepare themselves for business ownership, the women are working with various organizations, including the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Chatham University, Pittsburgh Chamber of Cooperatives and La Dorita kitchen share program.

They’re excited for the opportunity to earn a living, a goal that was unobtainable for them in Afghanistan. “It’s the American Dream,” Rice says, wiping away a tear. “They are coming together saying, ‘We do exist!’’’

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.